||Sunday, April 10, 2005
(This is a continuation of the story started in yesterday's post. Start there, then come back and read this one.)
Make that two turkey hunters...
As we packed our gear away and stripped out of clothes that were way
too warm now that the temperature had risen into the 60s, Don said,
"Wait 'til we get a bird," I said. "You got a season's worth of
education already this morning--not from me, from the birds--but it
I had some business to attend to in West Bend, and Don and Mitch wanted
to see how the other hunters had done, so we parted company and planned
to regroup later at the Kountry Keg. There, sixteen mentors and their
hunters would gather to swap stories and let the moms and the local
paper photograph the successful hunters. This is the second year the
North Shore Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation has
held a hunt for novice hunters under the Department of Natural
Resources' "Learn-to-Hunt" program, but I guarantee it won't be the
NWTF is a strong supporter of lowering or removing entirely the hunting
age in states where there are still restrictions. They support events
like this as one way to introduce more first-timers to hunting. There's
no better sport to do it with than turkey hunting because of the
interaction between hunter and quarry, the time of year, and a number
of other factors. Turkey hunting is not a piece of cake, but it's a
sport where coaching works well, where there are often multiple
opportunities to see and take game, where the game taken is of
considerable size and where the rewards can be far-reaching.
Mitch Heupel carries his gobbler out of the woods after his successful hunt.
I got back to the Kountry Keg around 3:30, where there were already six
birds hanging. One was a dandy 4-year-old with one mean-looking hook, a
second broken spur and a short beard that must have frozen off last
winter. Hunt organizer Mike Keefe told me Don and Mitch had gone
back to set up a screen blind where we had planned to hunt this morning.
"Are they planning to hunt this afternoon?" I asked.
"They can't shoot a bird without you there," he said.
I jumped in the truck and headed back to our property.
Halfway there, Don called and said they had seen three birds, one right
where we had been hunting all morning. When I got there, the decision
to give it one more try was a no-brainer. I have to be in Green Bay
Sunday afternoon, and both Mitch and I were eager to get a bird
Saturday, although Don had said earlier he was looking forward to
hunting again today.
We talked about where to set up for a quick hunt. Don offered to stay
behind and let me and Mitch give it a try, so I asked Mitch which of
the two locations he wanted to go to.
"Well, if we go after those two birds that went down that way, we might
not be able to call them out of the woods. I think we should go where
we were this morning."
"You got it," I told him. "Let's go."
Following the east-west fenceline that ran along a ridge, we quickly
covered the 200 yards to the field corner where we had sat in the
morning. I had brought a decoy, but decided not to set it up.
As we approached the corner, I yelped on the same Brett Gorzalski
cherry-on-poplar box call I had used most of the morning, just to see
if a bird might be close by. It's always risky to call before you are
set up, but we didn't have much time, so I took the chance.
There was no answer, so we sneaked down the wooded slope to withing 5
yards of the field and set up on the biggest tree around, a basswood
about a foot in diameter. This was going to be a quick, close-in
encounter if it happened at all, and we would rely on stillness and
surprise to get it done. Sitting a few yards inside the woods helps a
great deal when birds approach from a field.
Once settled, I started calling alternately on a Rohm Brothers slate
and Brett's box. Within five minutes, Mitch whispered "There's a bird
in the field." A moment later, he said "It's coming this way. I think
it's a hen. I don't see a beard."
Over his shoulder, I could see a turkey walking steadily toward us, as
if on a string. I stopped calling, since it had pinpointed our
location. "Let it look for us," I figured. It looked like a hen, but I
tried hard to put a beard on it. I figured Mitch would be happy to
shoot a jake at this point. On it came, clucking inquisitively with
When it reached the woods edge, it turned its head one way, then the
other, clucking out a turkey "where are you?" It was so close, Mitch
blocked my view of it. I slowly eased around him and confirmed what he
had clearly seen. As I did, the hen picked up my movement and trotted
back into the field, then flew a hundred yards or so to our west.
"Good," I thought. "We're better off with her out of the way."
"You could have shot that bird," I said to Mitch.
"I could have?" he asked, with a touch of letdown in his voice.
"No, I mean if it had been a tom, you could have shot it."
"Yup," he replied.
After a long day in the field, I knew my hunter was ready.
I barked out a couple yelps on the box and a turkey gobbled back. With
the ventriloquy that gobbles seem to generate, I thought it came from
the hills just south of us. At any rate, it sounded close enough to
keep us in the game with minutes to go.
I yelped again. He gobbled again, from the same location, I thought.
"There's two more birds in the field," Mitch whispered.
I love this kid's sharp eyes!
"Where are they?" I asked.
"Straight across the field, coming this way. They look big."
I yelped again and heard a gobble from the hills reply. I leaned slowly
forward and looked north across the field over Mitch's shoulder to see
two dark birds walking toward us along the field edge.
"If we had sat in that blind you and your dad set up, you'd be shooting one right now," I said.
I yelped again, and one of those two birds gobbled back. Every now and then a bird reaches a point on his
death march where you just know you are going to get a shot. These toms
reached that point about a hundred yards from us, and my heart started
banging in my chest like a rabbit that wanted out of a cage. If Mitch was excited, I couldn't tell it.
When we sat down, I had showed Mitch two openings he could shoot
through, both with just a light screen of burdock and raspberry canes.
I stopped calling and hoped the birds would continue along the edge and
pass in front of us, where I would try to cutt them to a halt in one of
the openings. A tricky manouevre, but worth a shot. If they didn't stop
where we wanted them to, at this range Mitch could safely shoot through
even the small saplings that screened most of the edge.
"Safety off," I whispered. I didn't want either of us to forget that
when it came time to shoot. "Don't shoot if they are close together.
Wait until they separate."
I wondered if his idea of close together and mine were similar. Did he
have any idea how tight his pattern would be at 15 yards? Probably, I
thought. He and his dad had shot at several targets the afternoon
But, turkeys being what they are, these toms stepped into the woods 20
yards short of our position and started up the hill toward us. Mitch's
gun was pointed at the first opening, 30 degrees to the right. I had to
do something and fast, so I started cutting on the box, which I held
out of their sight behind Mitch.
The birds stopped. One shifted back and forth nervously, just as the
hen had done before she flew. The other went into a half strut.
"Do you have a shot?" I whispered.
"Not yet," Mitch replied.
"Cutt, cutt, cutt," went the box.
Nervous Ned started moving back toward the field, while the strutter
puffed up again. That's when Mitch made his move. He swung his shotgun
toward the stationary tom. I hit the box call hard and the bird's head
"Take him!" I hissed. The "boom" came so fast it startled me, and the tom lay flopping in the field.
I jumped out and ran to him, but I could have taken my time. This bird
was going nowhere. Meanwhile, his nervous partner ran partway up the
hill, then flew out across the field when I yelled. He'll have a story
to tell the rest of the gang.
Mitch joined me as the bird reflexively beat his wings and expired.
"You're a heck of a hunter," I said. "Congratulations!"
"Thanks," he beamed.
The bird's 3/4-inch spurs indicated it was a two-year old, which
suggested the toms that had all the hens were older birds.
Two-year-olds are usually cooperative early in the season. These two
were especially so.
When Don reached us, he savored the moment, as Mitch and I told him how
the birds had come in, how Mitch had spotted them, how he had waited
until just the right moment and then decisively made his move.
We took a bunch of photos to freeze this moment for posterity, then
walked back to the vehicles. Mitch proudly carried his shotgun slung
over one shoulder and his bird, safely tucked into a Sling-It carrier,
over the other. Don couldn't stop grinning.
"This is better than my first deer, my first pheasant, my first duck, all combined," he said.
"Contagious, isn't it?" I said.
Mitch and I were elated, but glad it was over.
"What are you going to do tomorrow morning?" I asked.
"Sleep late," he said.
Don wanted Mitch to ride back to the Kountry Keg with me and show his
bird to the gathered hunters. En route, Mitch was quiet, as he had been
most of the day. I asked him if he would do this again.
"Oh yeah," he replied. "Oh yeah."
We were the last hunters to bring in a bird, and Mike Keefe was surprised
to see we had killed one. I reiterated the 20-minute-cooperative-bird
theory, and several other mentors nodded. When you do everything right
all day long and nothing happens, you begin to second-guess your
set-up, your calling and the birds themselves. Then, a bird (or in this
case, a pair) walks right in like he's supposed to, and it's over
in minutes. Eleven hours and minutes.
Don's older son, Wes, had been hunting all day with John Roden. They
had seen plenty of birds, but similar to our early experience, they had
been unable to close the distance. Don planned to hunt with John and
Wes this morning. I'll let you know if they got one.
Meanwhile, Don is planning to mount Mitch's bird.
"I hope you have a lot of room for trophies," I told Mitch's proud mom, Paula.
I have a feeling he's not going to stop at one turkey.
13-year-old Mitch Heupel with the 23-pound gobbler he shot last
Saturday, while hunting with his father, Don, and me on a Learn-to-Hunt
If you've ever hunted turkeys all day, had several opportunities to
kill a bird, and then finally connected as the clock ticked down to
quitting time, then you might have some idea how I felt when my young
hunter, 13-year-old Mitch Heuple, lowered the boom on a 23-pound
gobbler at 4:45 p.m. yesterday.
When that tom went down, I barked, "Pump it, safety on!" to Mitch,
jumped up, ran to the flopping bird and let out a "Yeee-haa!" that
carried the news to every turkey in two counties.
Then I remembered I had a radio in my pocket.
I sheepishly called Mitch's dad, Don, and told him we had a bird. Not
that he was in any doubt. He had been sitting about 200 yards away,
watching another field and fenceline, while we worked quickly but not
altogether desperately to get Mitch a shot. I don't think I've ever
seen a bigger grin on a grown man's face when Don hurried up to greet
us, hug his son and join in the celebration.
"You we're running out of time," he said.
"All it takes is 20 minutes and a willing bird," I replied.
That, and almost 11 hours of close-but-not-quite.
Well, we did take a 3-hour break at 1:00 after a 7-hour marathon that
gave us looks at maybe 8 different toms, a dozen jakes, another dozen
hens, plus enough other assorted wildlife to fill half a zoo. In other
words, another typical day in the turkey woods.
Our day began at 5:00 a.m. when we met at our assigned property. Friday
night, I told them, a fired-up tom had triple-gobbled to my owl hooting
at 7:15 in a strip of woods along the Milwaukee River. Friday morning,
I had heard at least a half-dozen different gobblers sounding off in
hills south of our field.
I had devised game plans for both set-ups, and we opted for a big oak
in the corner of a field nearest the birds in the hills. As day broke,
gobblers sounded off all around us. Don was laughing out loud at the
commotion, and at the possibility so many toms represented.
We were in the game, as my friend Bill Wiese says.
Once the morning gobbling concert ceased, we began hearing hens yelping
close by, but didn't get any gobblers to respond to my calling. A
redtail sailed out of the woods from the southeast, landed in our oak
and eyeballed our three decoys. I told Mitch to look up slowly, then I
clucked a few times. The hawk looked down at us, sized up the situation
and beat it across the field. I didn't want it messing up our chances.
Around 7:20 or so, a tom and hens answered my calls from the woods
behind us, but they circled us to the southwest and came out into the
field 150 yards away. The tom led a half-dozen hens straight east
toward the river, ignoring our calls. Minutes later, Mitch spotted
birds on the hillside where those had first appeared. Two more toms and
another flock of hens came into the field where the first group had and
followed their route to the river, again ignoring my calls.
Before we had a chance to decide whether to go after them, Mitch said,
"There's some birds right over there," and pointed across the narrow
I looked and hissed "Don't move."
Three jakes were standing at the edge of the field about 60 yards away,
looking in our direction. The rest of the gang filed up behind them,
pushing them into the field, and in seconds there were more birds than
I could count, all jakes and hens.
The lead jakes walked right up to our decoys and milled around
nervously, as Mitch tried to ease his gun up and I whispered
instructions. For a heartbeat or two, there was enough daylight between
the birds to risk shooting, but Mitch held his fire and the group
sauntered back out of range, then headed for the river on the same
route as the first two flocks.
"I couldn't get my head down on the gun," Mitch confessed, as we debriefed on what had just happened.
"Don't worry about it," I told him. "That was a great practice run for later."
"Later" came not long after, when two toms stepped through a gap in the
fenceline that leads to the river, about 15 yards from the tree I
almost set up on. That has never happened to you, has it? They gobbled
and strutted in response to my calls, but beelined east inthe same
direction the other groups had gone.
By now, even your sister who lives in Manhattan would have detected a
pattern. I had no good plan, however, to deal with it. The birds had
all walked out of sight around a point of brush and now could be
anywhere behind us, along the river in either direction or even across
Mitch and I sneaked along the woods to the brushy point to see where
they might have gone. The two lone toms were still in the field around
the point, and they walked into the woods. I guessed they had seen me.
The others were nowhere to be seen.
So, we rejoined Don at our oak and opted to eat a snack and sit tight, waiting to see if they would come back.
Oh, they sure did all right. A sandwich later, the field was suddenly
full of turkeys. Four toms strutted, then started fighting, while a
fifth tom stood alone in full display nearest the flock of hens. When
the fight started, the two lone toms came running out of the woods to
join in, and now there were six toms jumping into the air, spurs
flying, wings beating and no doubt rattling their "fighting purrs" as
they carried on. At 300 yards and downwind, we had a clear view, but
the audio portion of the program was faint.
"Do they do that often?" Don asked.
"I'm sure they do, but I've never seen anything like that in 20 years of turkey hunting," I said.
As the toms chased each other around, we hoped the fight would work its
way toward us. Instead, they gradually calmed down and filtered into
the woods toward the river and disappeared. Not once did they pay any
heed to my calling, although I threw everything at them before I gave
up and just watched.
They had barely disappeared, when Don spotted several deer coming from
the west. Six does and fawns ambled through the gap in the fenceline
where the two toms had come from and crossed the field at a fast trot toward the river.
By now, we were shaking our heads at the show. I hoped Mitch didn't think this was a typical parade!
"Did I tell you the elephants are due to come though at 11:00?" I asked
Don. At that point, I wouldn't have been surprised if they did.
After the commotion settled down, here came another
tom, out of the strip of woods by the river. He was all alone, so I
figured we had a chance at him. I hit my box call sparingly, and he
s-l-o-w-l-y walked toward us. Never gobbled once. Never strutted. He
took a good 20 minutes to come halfway across the field, then he turned
east, walked around the brushy point and out of sight.
I figured he didn't like the jake decoy standing with our two hens.
Later, back at the Kountry Keg, where our hunters gathered at the end
of the day, Ted Fischer confirmed my impression. "Satellite bird," he
said. "He probably got his butt kicked enough times that he avoids the
other toms and gets a little action by sneaking around like that."
At any rate, I pulled the jake and one hen, and we sat it out for
another hour, during which we talked to a gobbler and hen that came
tantalyzingly close in the brush behind us, but left without showing
I was frustrated, but figured we had a good chance later in the
afternoon or this morning. We picked up our gear and headed out for a
Speaking of which, to be continued....
© Copyright 2006 Dan Small.